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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Muddy Kanza

Weather has been a huge factor in some of the big gravel races so far this year with Land Run's mud destroying derailleurs left and right and only one person making it past the first Trans Iowa checkpoint before the cutoff. Hopes that Dirty Kanza would avoid the curse were dashed by constant rain over Emporia in the weeks before the race. Every look at my weather app during the 10-day forecast window (and there were many such looks) was highlighted by the big red FLOOD WARNING bar at the top of the page.

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Despite this, I was at peace. I had trained for a DK PR, hoping for a 17-hour or maybe, in my faintest everything-goes-perfectly-and-miracles-really-do-happen dreams, a finish time that started with 16, but when conditions made it apparent that this was most unlikely I changed my focus to adventure.  A challenging Dirty Kanza would be sure to yield good stories, and adventure racing has left me no stranger to finding fun in difficult conditions.

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Wet roads at the Fig AR back in November. It had snowed that morning,so that water was COLD.
My equanimity was shaken at the rider meeting Friday afternoon when race director Jim Cummins noted that some of the water crossings were 8 feet deep. I was fully prepared to carry my bike through chest-deep water but not to swim. Obviously the promoters weren't sending anyone in literally over their heads, and he reassured us that contingency plans were in place if the waters didn't recede enough to be safely crossed.

The majority of the DK route is gravel, but there are several dirt roads which can be real issues in wet conditions. More rain hit Emporia Thursday and Friday, and the intel was that an early 3-mile stretch of dirt road was so bad that one of the Jeeps scouting the course had gotten stuck. Hike-a-bike skills were going to come in handy if things didn't dry out quickly.

Mother Nature tempered her May bitchiness with a generous race-day forecast: unseasonably low temperatures, no rain, and a relatively gentle wind out of the north (I spent a considerable amount of time with the course map figuring out exactly how many miles we'd spend riding into a headwind once the course turned back to the north: 44, if you're interested, broken up into 1-11 mile stretches). She must have woken up in a bad mood, though, because we woke to a misty morning and increased wind: the forecast of 10 mph max winds became 15 mph with gusts in the 20's at times. Not cool, Mother Nature. Not cool at all.

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The morning mist was so insignificant compared to the rain we could have faced that it didn't factor into my thoughts for the day, but it could have ended my race before I reached the starting line. Shouldering my bike to descend the outdoor staircase from the hotel's second floor, I took about three steps before slipping on the wet metal and falling the rest of the way down to the ground...except I didn't fall, somehow managing to surf the stairs on my flip flops, landing on my feet at the bottom without dropping my bike or my purse. My heart rate probably didn't return to normal for an hour, but I took the incident as a sign of a charmed day.

We were at the start line early enough that I had plenty of time to be ready and lined up in the 16 hour group without any last-minute rushing.  My faster Momentum teammates were staged a few pace groups ahead of me, but I didn't have any desire to hang on to a faster pace than I was comfortable with, especially so early in a long day, and I still had friends around me.
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Dirty Kanza has been such a Team Virtus thing since before I'd ever heard of it that it was weird to be there without the whole group. I was really glad to have Travis there with me.
Travis, Justin, Craig, Tara, and Chris were all right there and I could see other St. Louis area friends nearby.  Even Jim, who's much faster than I'll ever hope to be, was back there with us, riding singlespeed and hoping to avoid getting caught up in the lead-pack craziness that eventually derailed his race last year; his presence was a real perk because he gave me some last-minute tutoring in the on-the-back bike carrying style I'd first seen employed in his Land Run blog post.


The one person missing was my DK buddy from last year, Matt. We'd tentatively planned to ride together as long as our paces matched, and I knew he and his friends were also in the 16 hour group but couldn't see them. Oh, well. I assumed things would sort themselves out once we got moving. Being so far back in the pack, it was impossible to hear any of the pre-race instruction at the front, so we only knew the race was starting when the people ahead of us started to move.

Leg 1: Emporia to Madison ~73 miles - 6:47:51 ride time

A Dirty Kanza roll-out is a special thing. The street is packed with spectators, all cheering and ringing cowbells. You really do feel like the rockstar on all the DK merchandise.  We hadn't made it more than a few blocks before we stopped, blocked by one of the trains that runs through town every 25 minutes.
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff

"Great," somebody muttered, "Now I'm not going to win."

The pack split into two lines as we turned onto the gravel roads. Damp but very rideable, they showed clear signs of having been underwater recently, most notably the large carp lying by the side of the road. In addition to being the toughest race I've ever done, DK now holds the distinction of the only time I've ever had to avoid a fish while on a bike.

Right around this point Matt and his buddies came rolling past me, so I jumped into their draft. We all rolled together until about the ten mile mark, when we hit the hike-a-bike. I stopped at the edge of the road before my tires touched mud and hoisted my bike the way Jim had showed me earlier. It was surprisingly comfortable. Crowds of people lined the grassy edges of the road, but I stuck with the group in the muddy middle.

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Not me, but you get the idea.
Photo credit: Jason Kulma
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We're having fun now!
Photo credit: Josh Johnson
I really felt for the people on tandems; the hike-a-bike was an ordeal for them. I had a much easier time; in fact, it was weirdly fun. My adventure mindset was in full swing, and the situation was so ridiculous that you had to laugh: not an hour into a 200-mile race we were carrying our bikes through peanut-butter mud with no end in sight.  Mud-splattered faces were only outnumbered by shoes that looked more like fluffy bear-paw slippers. Some people grumbled while others shared my entertainment. "Well," one guy remarked, "no good story ever started 'We were sitting on the couch...'"

"Right!" I continued with one of Bob's favorite lines, "and no good story ever ended 'It got hard and then we quit.'"

The mud seemed to last forever, making me even more apprehensive about my chances of making it to the first checkpoint before the cutoff, but everyone was in the same situation and there was good camaraderie in the ranks. Very occasionally someone would ride through, but I knew that was beyond my abilities. While I'm not a particularly fast cyclist, it turns out I can carry a bike pretty well. As the hike stretched on I passed a lot of people and caught up with more and more of the Momentum guys, who typically I'd never see until the finish line.

After about three miles of this craziness the mud came to an end; I knocked as much mud as possible off of my bike shoes and climbed back onto my bike. I was a little worried my legs would be tired from trudging through all that slop, but the only lingering after-effect was a gigantic blister on my heel, the consequence of a slipping ankle sock.  My relatively speedy hike had another negative consequences, though. Once I was pedaling again, rider after rider flew past me like I was standing still. This was somewhat demoralizing until I finally realized that these were all the fast people I'd passed on the HAB; typically they'd have been miles ahead of me by this point.

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Photo credit: Jeff Maassen
The gravel was in pretty good shape, some muddy spots but nothing like the road where we'd carried our bikes. Now the issue was water crossings. Most of them were small, but the recent rains had me worried about washouts you couldn't see beneath the water. Approaching one, I saw a guy ride in, hit something, and fly over his handlebars. That was enough to convince me to walk it, and as others rode past me into it I felt like a wimp until a couple others crashed in the same spot.

Coming through the cattle pens about 24 miles in.
Photo credit: J. Greg Jordan
I'd lost my riding companions during the hike a bike, though for a while I repeatedly leapfrogged with Joe, Jeff, and Shaun, who were faster than me but made some stops for mechanical issues and at the neutral water stop.  I'd worn my camelbak so I could avoid stopping for water this early in the course, concerned about crowding and water availability with a stop so early into the race (around mile 32). Just past there I saw the one person I never expected or wanted to see on the course; Mickey was walking his broken bike back towards the water stop, out of the race after beating the sun last year. I was so disappointed for him but reminded him of the silver lining that now he could clean up my bike for me at the checkpoint. I'm not entirely sure he was comforted by that thought.

I rode the remainder of leg 1 by myself, but not really alone, talking with people who were riding near me or reliving memories of past trips along some of the familiar roads.  There were no more prolonged hikes during this leg, though we did have some bigger water crossings and reroutes due to high water.

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Water crossing
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I opted to carry my bike through the water because, you know, I hadn't done enough of that yet.
Screen grab from Dave Leiker photography slideshow
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Low-water crossing on the reroute. The water got higher towards the middle and was really moving. I was very nervous walking across this. (Photo credit: Matt Gunter)
The reroutes were easy to follow, but they created confusion because I had no idea how they affected the mileage to the first checkpoint. Would it be longer or shorter? What were my chances of making the cutoff? I was skeptical that I'd get there in time and not completely broken up about that. Leg 1 was hard. I wasn't going to quit (been there, done that, didn't like the feeling), but if I gave it my best effort and didn't get there in time...well, chalk it up to a tough year. I'd join the people crewing for my Momentum teammates and do what I could to contribute to their finishes.  I had mixed feelings when I reached the checkpoint with over an hour to spare, seeing the smiling faces and hearing the cheers of not just my crew but my STL-area friends there to crew for Chris, Kate, Teresa, Lo, and Alice.

My friend Emma was crewing for me. She has years of DK crew experience as well as volunteering at many other races, and she was totally invested in my success. I rolled up to a 3-person crew, though, as Tiara (who I know) and Loralee (who I met right then) were hanging with Emma waiting for their own riders and in true AR-family fashion, jumped right in to take care of me.

With the cool temps I decided to ditch my camelbak in favor of one extra bottle in my jersey, so in addition to refilling my food, getting me full bottles, making sure I was fed, and cleaning up my bike, they also emptied my pack to make sure I had everything I needed for the next leg. I have been so lucky in all of my DK experiences to have friends who are willing to give up their time and spend the day taking care of me.  I can't even tell you how much that means to me.

Compared to previous races this year, I'd been much more purposeful and conscientious about nutrition and hydration, and it showed. I felt much less foggy than at mile 47 at Cedar Cross and overall pretty good.  As best I can tell, within 11 minutes I had on dry socks and was off for leg 2. Nearing the end of the block, I heard my name and saw Matt with his wife, Valerie, who was crewing for him. He waved me off, telling me he'd catch up with me, and I hit the hill out of Madison with lighter spirits in anticipation of company for leg 2.


Leg 2: Madison to Cottonwood Falls ~81 miles ~8:55 ride time for leg - 15:42:18 total race time
Note: all of this happened, but it may not have happened exactly in this order. The bad thing about using a Garmin over cue sheets and going with happy ignorance over paying close attention to mileage and time is that you have no real idea where on the course things happened.

There was another reroute just out of town, which meant that once again I was going to be flying blind regarding end mileage. Since I was using my Garmin for navigation, all I could see was the arrow pointing where to go, the miles remaining to the next turn, and the estimated time to the next turn. If I switched screens I could see the time or my current mileage, but I did this very rarely, preferring the zen that comes with just following the road until you get where you're going.

At the same time, I was getting a little sick of riding on my own and started to consider stopping to wait for Matt. I'd enjoy the break. I'd have company. Win-win. On the other hand, Mickey would kill me if I stopped, plus our ride-together agreement was based on us going at comparable paces. Nearly 90 miles in I was starting to wear down and wasn't positive I could keep up with the guys when they caught me.  I wouldn't take it personally if they dropped me, but I'd feel stupid to wait around and still have to ride alone.

My deliberation ended when Matt and Dave caught me at yet another hike-a-bike muddy road. Dave started riding before we did and was soon out of sight. The road became rideable even for me, but pedaling on the packed mud was exhausting and tricky, keeping momentum on a soft surface while riding in ruts. We were going slightly downhill and averaging 4 mph. I was even happier to reach the end of that stretch than to finish the first bike hike-a-bike...and way more tired.

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You're going to have to trust me when I tell you it was so much worse than it looks.
Tara was at the end of the road with a broken derailleur as she and Craig were discussing converting it to a singlespeed so she could keep going.  As disappointed as I was for her, I was also a little irritated with my own derailleur for its own continuing health.  All day long the course was littered with broken bikes and shattered dreams and here my stupid bike was refusing to give me an out. We may have "joked" about "accidentally" breaking our own bikes so we "couldn't" keep going, but in anticipation of a short break the upcoming neutral water stop we moved on.

Between us and that water stop rested some pretty sketchy bridges and "the bitch", a steep S-curve climb where I didn't make it far beforewalking. Another guy rode it halfway up before giving in, only to realize "This is just as bad walking!"  We proceeded to give him a hard time about taking the easy way out and riding part way.

The course turned north (into the wind) at mile 107, giving me the opportunity to put Mickey's advice into practice: You need to stop taking the conditions personally. I definitely do that. I get tired and every hill is a personal insult. The wind is killing me. The race director wants me to suffer. This time, when the wind was in my face I used Shaun's line: I'm a knife cutting through the wind. I focused on the fact that I just had to get through this stretch before the wind was at my side again. "The good news," I told Matt, "is that we're also going to be riding up hills that block the wind."

He may be a gentleman, but not enough to let me rest in my delusion. "Not these hills! They aren't steep enough to block the wind." Isn't it just like Jim Cummins to send us up hills that don't give us a break from the wind?

The day was getting long and the miles and hills were wearing on us. Again and again we marveled, "We paid for this! Remember how we swore last year we were never doing this again? What's wrong with us?" We also had the opportunity to play Good Samaritan to a rider who was stopped along the road; after several flats he needed a tube and a pump, both of which we had, so we pulled over, gave him the things he needed, and waited for him to get his tire changed and aired up.

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I think I took this while the Kuat guy was changing his tire. My hands were so disgusting. 
It seemed to take for-ev-er to get to the mile 124 water stop, and when we did there was a big crowd. There was one 5-gallon cooler with GU brew, one 5-gallon cooler that still had some water, and some of the volunteers had gone for more. This left a line of around 10 people for water. I hated losing the time, but one thing I've learned is that I have to have one bottle of plain water; I can't drink only flavored stuff all day.

As we (finally) pulled away from the water stop, my Garmin died. Having anticipated this, I'd borrowed an extra Garmin from Chuck; since Matt had the course on his (not dead) Garmin, I kept riding while I switched computers and got Chuck's going. I hadn't thought about the fact that his settings were different from mine, little details like his mileage is set on kilometers instead of miles and his readout doesn't show the time of day, so it was basically just useful for recording my track and showing me where I was going unless I wanted to do math. Which I didn't.

Matt did do the math. At this point it was around 6:45; we had 35 miles and 3.5 hours to make the CP2 cutoff. Should be plenty of time. As we rode along, he noticed, "Hey, there's Wendy!" We caught up and passed her, then she caught back up with us, so I got a chance to ask about our mutual friends before she moved on. Matt urged me to chase since he was dragging a little and knew I was feeling strong at that point. I thought about it but decided that in the long run I was better off sticking together and having company for the last leg of the race, generally a dark time mentally for me, than fighting out a couple of places in the standings. I fail at being competitive.

Photo credit: Matt Gunter
Other than Matt feeling lousy, this was a very pretty, very fun section of the race with non-terrible climbs and a nearly ten-mile stretch of downhills.  We were probably 10 miles out from Cottonwood Falls when the sun began to set enough to use our lights, and I was very glad I'd just put them on in the morning instead of waiting until the last checkpoint.  The temperature, which had been comfortably cool all day, started dropping. I was chilly, though not miserable, in my jersey and arm warmers and really looking forward to the jacket waiting at CP2, which we reached at about 9:45.

Finally warm and ready to finish this thing!
Photo credit: Mickey Boianoff
Once again my crew took awesome care of me. Matt's wife had picked up coffee, and Emma had hot chicken noodle soup waiting for me. While Emma loaded my pre-opened food and my bottles onto my bike, Loralee wrapped me in a blanket, sat me down, and changed my socks for me. Meanwhile Mickey took my bike and cleaned it up. Amazing teamwork and care from a group of people who'd been up every bit as long as I had.



Leg 3: Cottonwood Falls to Emporia ~44 miles, ~4:20 ride time, 20:02:07 total time

We'd heard conflicting information all evening. One guy told us the volunteers at the water stop had told him that the CP3 and finish line cutoffs had been pushed back an hour, which would make them 11:15 p.m. and 4 a.m. respectively. I didn't think this was necessary; after all, the course was what it was -- either you could finish it in the allotted time or you couldn't.  At CP2 our crews told us that a nasty rumor was circulating that the finish line cutoff had been changed to 2 a.m.; I'd have flipped out if that had been the case but couldn't worry about it at the time. Surely the promoters wouldn't do that. We'd also heard that leg 3 was a piece of cake compared to the other legs.

None of that was true. No cutoffs had changed for the 200-mile riders, though one had for the 100-mile group, and while the last leg may not have been as challenging as the first two, after already riding 158 miles, the only thing that would have been a piece of cake would be lying down for a nap.  Why would Jim Cummins put hills here? He must really hate us.

As strong as I'd felt for the last half of leg 2, I felt lousy for leg 3, dragging behind on flats and struggling up hills. Matt did an awesome job of checking in on me, maintaining a pace I could manage, and previewing what we had coming up.  Last year I did a lot more walking up hills than I did this time, but I was also a lot faster on the downhill side. This year's wet conditions had resulted in more than one sloppy mud hole towards the bottom, robbing me of the kind of confidence I'd felt in 2014. Even my typical exhaustion-induced loss of fear (if I crash, someone will drive me back) deserted me. Against all of my pre-race expectations it appeared we were going to finish this race. I wanted that more than a car ride.

This was a joke, but one I clung to all day, and Matt and I spent a lot of time commenting about how glad we were to be washing away the shame of our "easy year" finish in 2014.
At midnight or so I started feeling really sleepy. Not quite fall-asleep-on-your-bike sleepy, but almost. I started eating more, and that seemed to help. Another help was the roadside party set up on our way. I think it was the same family from last year, though in a different location, and I'd been fantasizing about their yard and a can of Coke when we came across them earlier than expected. They had beer, Coke, oreos, and a fire. I took a soda and some cookies and stayed away from that fire. One racer was there waiting for a ride after getting sucked into a rut on a downhill, crashing, and destroying his wheel. So close, relatively, but too far away to run or walk it in. I felt terrible for him.

Snack break over, we pushed on.  Groups kept approaching and passing so quickly that we kept asking ourselves, "How were they behind us??" But we'd had an incredibly lucky day, absolutely no mechanicals of any kind, no flat tires, no crashes, and no health issues other than just minor struggles. Many others hadn't been so lucky, and we'd been able to keep riding while they were stopped.

Finally the lights of Emporia grew nearer and nearer.  Jim Cummins just had to put us on loose gravel right at the end! He probably had it brought in specifically for us. We sped into town and onto the smooth, smooth pavement of the home stretch, through the Emporia State University campus, and down the street to the finish line, crossing at 2:02 a.m.

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Getting my hug from race director Kristi Mohn
Post-race triumph
What a great riding partner!

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My awesome crew...couldn't have done it without her support!

I can tell you without a doubt that this was the hardest race I've ever done, and if that doesn't come across in my writing that's because I've had a couple days of space.  It was SO HARD. And I finished, taking just one hour more than for last year's "easy" conditions. I never would have finished this course two years ago, but that DNF has fed my training ever since and made me stronger and more determined.

My determination has its limits, though. During the race, I swore repeatedly that I was never coming back and doing it again. I hadn't made it back home before the thought of not being at next year's race started to hurt. It's become a little bit like Cheers, where maybe not everybody knows my name but an awful lot do, and I can't imagine not being there. I'm not racing DK in 2016 (I can't...I have other plans and told too many people to punch me in the face if I talked about registering), though I'm hoping to at least salve my FOMO by going to crew.  But in 2017, I'll be back with a vengeance.